We’d like to share a poignant story from Dr. Jim O’Connell about one of his female street patients who endured so much, but never forgot or stopped loving her children.
For many years I cared for a woman who described herself as a “bag lady and a drunk.” She slept in a doorway near South Station, drank heavily, and wore tattered and torn clothes while protecting herself with a perimeter of putrid objects, including gallons of rancid milk, eggs hard boiled weeks earlier, and rags soiled with urine and excrement. Piercing the stench was difficult and most people gave her the wide berth she desired. She contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion in the 1990s and eventually developed cirrhosis of the liver.To qualify for a life-saving liver transplantation, we admitted her to our respite program and she managed to stay sober for more than six months. One Sunday morning as she was nearing the time for her surgery, she asked me to take her photograph. I previously tended to avoid pictures of our patients’ faces for fear of voyeurism or exploitation or invasion of privacy. But she insisted and asked me to meet her in her room. When I arrived, I was stunned to see her almost beatific in a beautiful linen dress, hair in a neat bun, nails polished, lipstick and mascara carefully placed, and freshly picked flowers in her Styrofoam coffee cup on her bedside table.Suspecting that she feared the complicated surgery and possibility of death, I asked her if she wanted to talk when I brought the framed picture to her later that afternoon. She gently chastised me, reminding me that she had lived on the streets for almost 30 years and faced death each night, often embracing the thought of death. She took my breath away when she related that she had two daughters who were 3 and 5 years old when she last saw them decades ago. Should they want to find their birth mother someday, she wanted to be sure there was a picture of a mother they could be proud of.The experience of illness, suffering, and death for those who have lost everything and everyone in their lives is unfathomable to those of us with family and friends, and this woman plumbed the depths of loneliness in ways we could only imagine. Urban homelessness is abject poverty more lonely and hopeless than I have ever witnessed. I saw terrible poverty on brief journeys to Haiti and Africa, but the patients came to the hospital surrounded by families and children.One surprising result of this story. I returned to our respite program two days later, and twenty-two individuals asked to take their portraits. The universal desire to be recognized as a human being left me speechless, and today we have portraits of our patients throughout our building.
Wishing you and your loved ones a Happy Mother’s Day…
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